Does Everything Equal Nothing in Terry Gilliam’s Latest Dystopian Outing?

DIRECTED BY TERRY GILLIAM/2014 (U.S. theatrical release)

Zero_Theorem_posterBleakly ornate and terminally imaginative, Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem might be the new pre-eminent example of a film being infinitely admirable, but difficult to like. If that means anything to anyone…

Indeed, bleakness playing to a thinking filmgoer’s intuition is the order of the day here. It all happens in a rundown future world where the only things that seem to be working are the large ribbon-like TV monitors that wrap around every building at eye level, reducing pedestrians to captive receptacles for unending targeted ads. No one is bothered by this reductionist pigeonholing, after all, the only thing that truly matters is that everything must equal nothing. And according to an overarching authoritarian entity known as “Management”, it most certainly does. That is, until now, when an error has occurred…

If we’ve spent anytime observing mass considerations of such things, we know full well that the idea of everything equalling nothing is old (bad) news; everyone is over that. But when everything shouldequal nothing, and doesn’t – what then?? Even the sense that everything cannot make sense (which makes sense!) does not make sense. (Okay, so maybe that’s not so new, either. Just bear with me…) Christoph Waltz, sporting an impressively angular shaved head, plays Qohen Leth, a kind of human spread sheet. He’s a reclusive computer specialist with a clear case of multiple personality disorder (everything is “we” instead of “I”), but no energy or motivation to let his condition trouble him. When Management assigns him the task of getting to bottom of the current Existential Problem, he sets to work, relentlessly.


Except, how should a well-meaning automaton like Qohen be expected to get anything done when he keeps getting distracted by this parade of unwanted visitors?? Typing, typing… Downloading… Electrical hummmm… Extreme concentration… Knock, knock! Now what?!? Groan… Better see who it is…

It’s Lucas Hedges! He’s here playing a flippant teenage truth-sayer, ordering pizza he doesn’t want while nagging Qohen about baser urges, such as his confused fascination with a sexpot played by Mélanie Thierry, who may be more than she appears to be. (Aren’t they all?) She shows up quite often both in person and on the ever-glaring workstation screens, her attire and demeanor a distraction for all parties involved in The Zero Theorem, at every level. Quhen’s sexy trip to a virtual beach with her is just as much an aesthetic relief from the dark gloom of everything else as it is troubling in its fundemental artifice. Like so many men, Qohen is soon subsumed with the virtual girl – this, his only connection to a “feeling humanity”, being rooted in pure illusion. Gilliam, even in his older age, is well aware that we are collectively beyond the ability to simply unplug. (If the internet is the truly the great technological democratizer, then why is the software to have it voluntarily turned off called “Freedom”?)

The abandoned church Qohen operates in, long devoid of any spiritual life or connectivity, has its vast ramshackled damage filled in with gobs of wires, routers, blinking lights and screens. Because, of course it does. The crowning bit of set dressing is an enormous crucifix overlooking this New Sanctuary, the shattered-away head of Christ replaced with a camera. (Gilliam may be many things, but subtle isn’t one of them.) Most of the film, thanks no doubt in part to its significantly lower budget (by Gilliam standards), takes place in this foreboding environment. Filmgoers can debate whether or not this setting, in all its prominence and symbolism, is equating the vapidness of computer culture (the new religion!) with traditional worship, or attempting to say something entirely different. It begs the question – where does Gilliam truly stand amid all of these ideas? More importantly, where do we stand?


In the overtly-identifiable aesthetic and worldview of Gilliam, such gleeful nihilism and subversion fits like a glove. (Or maybe it fits like the custom-fitted rubber virtual reality suit worn several times by the protagonist as he attempts to indulge emerging escapist urges?) The material, without question, lends itself tremendously well to Gilliam’s trademark barbed social satire, lonesome melancholy, and visionary world-building. Unfortunately, it also lends itself to his dehumanized-to-a-fault, off-the-mark approach to filmmaking of the past decade.

There was a time not so long ago when a new Terry Gilliam film was a top tiered, hotly anticipated cinematic event. From his breakthrough detour-de-force Time Bandits in 1982, to his world-ending Bruce Willis starrer 12 Monkeys in 1995, Gilliam (comparatively) had Hollywood in the palm of his hand. But despite his fame and well-deserved following, the director’s luck has always been precarious at best. Although he describes The Zero Theorem as the third entry in his “dystopian trilogy”, beginning with 1985’s sublime Brazil, and continuing with 12 Monkeys – two widely seen, tremendously admired works – it nonetheless is getting the most miniscule of releases in the U.S., bypassing even conventional art house circuits, and going directly to university screenings and VOD. And to be sure, amid the impressive DIY design propping up the directorial vision, it’s nonetheless evident that one could make at least a dozen Zero Theorems with the sole budget of 12 Monkeys.

The sad fact is that even as Gilliam has once again successfully struggled to forge yet another of his admirably hopeless explorations, the questions here are not new. On one level, we might as well be discussing the rise of postmodernism over modernism, a tired discussion that’s over half a century old. (Zzzzzz…) But, on the other hand (or perhaps merely in column B), just because a notion is not new doesn’t mean it isn’t worth digging into. The Zero Theorem, an unapproachably cohesive, ever-glib low-end spectacle, exists in multiple columns: Engaging, check. Sleep inducing, check. But, bottom line: Always admirable. Check.

Looking on the brighter side of life, perhaps Gilliam can appreciate how the dystopian turn his career has taken is, after all, completely in keeping with his well communicated worldview? Certainly that means something, at least to him…